Backpacker shortfall presents opportunities for Australians

As uncertainty around COVID-19 and Australia’s isolation measures continues, there is no doubt that the country’s economy and businesses have been impacted in an unprecedented manner. Indeed, the food, agriculture and horticulture sectors are no different, having been affected in varying degrees. Some companies have experienced a rapid increase in production due to demand and restrictions on overseas imports, while others have experienced a rapid decline in demand, due to the essential shut-down of the restaurant and cafe sectors. 

Particularly, as Australia moves into autumn, questions regarding harvesting during these critical few months, are being raised. Typically, the Australian Government’s Harvest Trail program ensures that Australian JobSeekers, backpackers and travelers from all over the world are employed to assist Australian farmers and growers in harvesting their crops. However, in the wake of COVID-19 and bans of overseas travel, there are big gaps in the country’s workforce to assist.

The current situation

A large proportion of the agricultural sector including horticulture, pork and grain sectors typically rely on seasonal workers or backpackers and, as a result, there are risks to the sector’s workforce security should the travel restrictions continue or increase. These employees are often placed through the government’s Harvest Trail initiative, which gives people the opportunity to combine seasonal harvest work with travel around Australia. This however, could be problematic given the serious decrease in travelers, especially backpackers.

Recently, The Australian Government temporarily relaxed visa arrangements for Pacific workers under the Seasonal Worker Program and the Pacific Labour Scheme. Those employed through this scheme will now be able to continue working in Australia for up to 12 months in the agriculture sector, until the coronavirus crisis has passed. This will help to relieve some of the stress placed on farmers and food producers during peak harvest time, giving them access to more workers.

But despite these measures, growers are still concerned this won’t be enough to meet demand. Secretary of the Griffith and District Citrus Growers’ Association Vito Mancini told regional Fairfax newspaper The Land that the busiest period for orange growers will hit around April and May, when the Navel harvest would begin.

“Signs are that our big markets, China and Japan, are still keen to do trade, but it’s now up to us to make sure we can get oranges off the trees and into their shopping baskets,” Mr Mancini said.

Opportunities for Australian workers

Though concerning for employees within the sector, this labour gap could present an opportunity for Australian workers who have found themselves laid off or temporarily stood down from their jobs due to COVID-19 crisis.

GrainGrowers president and cropper, Brett Hosking told AAP that growers would be happy to welcome Australian workers from other industries, including the hospitality, retail, transport and manufacturing industries, which have been some of the hardest hit.

“If they’re keen to learn, keen to get involved in agriculture, grains offer a lot of opportunities and growers would be happy to train them up,” Mr Hosking said.

He said with harvest fast approaching, labour shortages due to travel restrictions was a topic of conversation in the industry, given growers strong reliance on backpacker labour forces, so the more jobs that could be filled, the better.

CozWine, as a chosen supplier of harvest labour services, is currently seeking candidates who would be interested in assisting farmers and growers, in regional NSW, during the harvest period. For more information, or to apply, click here.